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In the Italian language, "stare" used with the gerund, which is different from the English gerund, is a much more 'immediate' way of expressing the past than the plain imperfect verb form. It is a way of speaking about what we were doing at that very moment or about an ongoing action or event.

Thus, for example, "Stavamo guardando il telegiornale quando è andata via l'elettricità" can be translated as "We were watching the news on TV when the electricity was cut off", where the highlighted phrase are equivalent, at least literally, in the two languages.

But we can also say "Guardavamo il telegiornale quando è andata via l'elettricità" which is different from the previous sentence in the fact that it doesn't express the same emphasis, as if there were no interest in what we was doing when the electricity cut off or as if we don't want to highlight/emphasize exactly what we were doing at that very moment.

Now, hoping to have well explained the context, what word or phrase 'X' should we use in the sentence below to have a parallel translation?

We 'X' the news on TV when the electricity was cut off.

I have thought to the past tense form "watched", but I'm unsure because "watched" doesn't carry that sense of continuity that the word "guardavamo" do.

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    If I understand this Q aright, you're saying that in Italian, simply the choice of verb forms indicates which of two activities is the important one, and which is simply additional incidental information. If that's true, it seems like an interesting question to me. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 22 '13 at 21:10
  • @Fumble, yes, you have perfectly understood the question, and, as usual, you have posted an excellent answer which I upvoted. The interesting fact is that it is really diffucult to find your explantions in grammar books. Thank you. – user114 May 22 '13 at 21:26
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    @ Carlo: I'm sure you'll have noticed that it's quite normal in English to be quite casual in our use of tenses. I might just as well have said "I'm sure you have noticed...", or maybe even "I'm sure you notice..." (certainly, "I'm sure you realise..."). Some of the more "grammar-centric" answers on ELU make too much of tense distinctions that are at best sporadically observed by native speakers, if at all. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 22 '13 at 21:34
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English doesn't have very many different verb tenses; unsurprisingly, it doesn't have a variation to distinguish "minor, incidental, subsidiary" actions from "concurrent" actions that are more important. Typical phrasing in English for OP's second sense might be, for example,...

"The electricity was cut off. We were watching the news on TV at the time."

That's to say, if we need to, we can use some additional phrasing such as at the time to indicate that this activity was (probably) less important than whatever else happened then. Of course, we might think that watching TV news is inherently mundane, so it doesn't need to be specifically identified as "incidental". Most people would probably assume this second version means exactly the same as the first...

"The electricity was cut off while we were watching the news on TV."

It might just be possible to argue that using when instead of while above sometimes raises the importance of the fact that we were watching TV (as opposed to eating our tea, for example). Suppose I was asked if I'd seen some particular item on the news; I slightly suspect I'd be more inclined to use while rather than when if trying to explain that I hadn't, because of the power cut (only suspect, only slightly! :).

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    +1 The distinction OP marks might be expressed with an adverb in English: "We were actually watching TV" – StoneyB on hiatus May 22 '13 at 22:08

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